SETI Institute Principal Investigator
Knowing that microbes can survive the harsh environment of space, ecologist Margaret Race stresses the importance of planetary protection, asking what precautions we need to take for future missions to other planets—and how to prepare for missions that will return to Earth with samples from other worlds. To avoid harmful cross-contamination during space exploration, she works to prevent ‘hitchhiker’contamination of other planets by earthly microbes on outbound spacecraft, as well as similar contamination of Earth on return missions.
As scientists proceed with space exploration, planetary protection issues arise in nearly every phase of mission planning— involving fields as varied as engineering, science, law, and ethics. For a successful mission, scientific goals must be implemented by engineers and technicians, who design the spacecraft and prepare them for launch. Race and her colleagues also work with engineers to develop guidelines for laboratory design and practice, allowing safe containment of samples returned to Earth. She is also committed to enhancing the understanding of these issues by the public and the broader scientific community.
As an astrobiologist, Race is well aware of the care scientists must take to keep extraterrestrial environments pristine during exploration. As an ecologist, she is likewise focused on avoiding the introduction of biohazards to Earth. In conjunction with philosophers and theologians, she also addresses ethical issues about the intrinsic value of life indigenous to other worlds. “If there is life on Mars,” Race suggests, “it is appropriate to consider whether and how we should interact with it—both on Mars and here on Earth.” As scientists plan their next missions to other worlds, Race is there, encouraging exploration with scientific caution and a sense of responsibility.
- SETI Institute Explorer, Special Edition 2005